The Meaning Behind “Learning to Fly” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
via Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers / Youtube
The late and legendary Tom Petty had a career that stood out in its own unique way, earning him the adoration of millions. His remarkable journey began with the captivating release of his debut album Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers in 1976.
Over the following four decades, he crafted a singular and unparalleled niche for himself. While being hailed as one of the greatest American songwriters in history, he also possessed a voice that defined an era.
From the 1970s onward, Tom Petty became an iconic figure with his distinctive drawl resonating worldwide as a symbol of America’s heartland. By 1991, Petty and his voice had become as synonymous with the American rock scene as the electric guitar itself.
One of his songs that encapsulated both his songwriting prowess and his unique voice was the hit “Learning To Fly”.
“You can lay down and let the tragedy overwhelm you, or you can fly above it”
In 1991, four years after his California home was deliberately set on fire, the singer-songwriter was eager for a fresh start. Despite the traumatic incident, he maintained a positive outlook.
“Learning To Fly”, which conveyed an optimistic message, was the lead single of his eighth album with the Heartbreakers, Into the Great Wide Open.
Petty shared his perspective with ABC News, drawing inspiration from a pilot who mentioned that the most challenging aspect of flying was the descent from the sky.
“You can lay down and let the tragedy overwhelm you, or you can fly above it, and I think that’s sort of what I’m trying to say in that song. I don’t say that I can fly – I’m learning. Also, we’re expected to do a lot of things that we’re not necessarily equipped for,” the songwriter elaborated.
“It’s really simple music, simple lyrics”
With Into the Great Wide Open, Tom Petty united two facets of his creative world. He invited former ELO frontman and Traveling Wilburys bandmate Jeff Lynne – who had produced his debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, in 1989 – to collaborate on the next Heartbreakers record.
Guitarist Mike Campbell recalled that “Learning to Fly” was a Jeff Lynne production featuring numerous acoustic guitars layered densely, creating a simple yet enjoyable sound.
The song’s drum break at the end also brought excitement. The song’s simplicity and its message of perseverance struck a chord with fans and inspired many, leaving Petty proud of his creation.
“That’s the miracle of the song. There’s really not much to it. It’s really simple music, simple lyrics,” Campbell shared.
The song became a Tom Petty concert staple
“Learning to Fly” became a fan favorite at Tom Petty’s live shows, where he often stepped away from the microphone, allowing the audience to sing the chorus. The song’s enduring popularity was evident in frequent requests for its use in movies and live performances.
“We still get a lot of requests for that in movies, and people always want to hear it in a show. People embrace it,” Tom once said.
Even Petty’s peers acknowledged the song’s impact. Following Petty’s passing in 2017, his former Traveling Wilburys bandmate Bob Dylan paid tribute by performing a rendition of “Learning to Fly” during a concert encore.
Petty faced personal challenges as his first marriage was falling apart. Nevertheless, his songwriting provided solace, allowing him to move forward, as he expressed in an interview with Rolling Stone. Despite the difficulties, he remained grateful for being still alive and actively engaged in his creative pursuits.